If you’re a high school coach, chances are you didn’t study to be a software engineer or an IT specialist. But if you are someone who stays connected and pays attention, you’re probably aware that performance technology is becoming more prevalent and influential in athletics with each passing day. While I believe that we are fast approaching the tipping point where programs utilizing technology in their training becomes the rule rather than the exception, I recognize that there are plenty of folks out there resisting that trend for a variety of reasons.
If you or someone else in your sphere (your AD, head coach, etc.) needs a little help getting off the fence, I’ve written this article to address what I believe to be the three most common rationales for not investing in performance technology:
- I don’t need technology in my program.
- I don’t want to deal with the headaches.
- We can’t afford the price tag.
Before diving in, I thought it important to give some background on myself. (Spoiler alert: I’m no IT specialist). This year marks my 15th in teaching and coaching at my alma mater, Richland County High School. RCHS resides in the town of Olney, a small rural community in southeastern Illinois. I have coached three different sports, but my primary responsibilities have become leading our boys track program and heading up a school-wide initiative we call “Get Quick,” which focuses on impacting every athlete in our school through plyometrics and speed/agility training.
While I’ve always had what most would consider a knack for technology and am currently in the process of transitioning from social studies teacher to instructional technology coach, I have no formal training outside a few “computer” classes back in college. Long story short, if I can do this, you can do it. So, proceed with an open mind!
I Don’t Need It
It’s likely there are folks reading this who either need to be convinced technology is worth the time and money, or who need help selling the idea to someone else (fellow coaches, administrators, trusts/foundations, etc.). Assuming that’s the case, we should address this area first. So, why do you need performance technology in your program?While tech makes it possible to measure with incredible accuracy, what I most appreciate as a high school coach is the convenience and instantaneous feedback now available to my athletes and me. Click To Tweet
We’ll start with the most obvious benefit and briefly touch on the time-tested adage, “What we measure, we improve.” Technology has the capacity to completely transform what is possible when it comes to measuring for athletic performance in your program. And while tech makes it possible to measure with incredible accuracy, what I most appreciate as a high school coach is the convenience and instantaneous feedback that are now available to my athletes and me.
Recently, I took Tony Holler’s advice and decided to add the Freelap timing system to our wicket drill, and those two benefits were on full display. Wickets are always our kids’ favorite drill of the week, but taking the extra 90 seconds to set up the timer made it competitive, ensured a constant level of effort, and proved to our kids that they were actually running faster at the end of the drill than they were at the beginning. If I’ve learned anything in my 15 years of coaching, it’s that those three things are priceless.
But technology doesn’t just enhance what you were already doing—it has the potential to redefine what you do and create new possibilities. In other words, you now have the ability to measure things that you probably haven’t even imagined, on the field of play, and without disrupting your practice. Thanks to the guidance of guys like Coach Holler and Carl Valle, we’re using instruments like Freelap and the MuscleLab Contact Grid to tell kids how many miles per hour they are running and to score them on how well they “bounce.” Our ability to do this has given us the opportunity to train and celebrate our kids in ways that were never possible before.Technology doesn’t just enhance what you were already doing—it has the potential to redefine what you do and create new possibilities, says @olneytigertrack. Click To Tweet
Don’t underestimate the impact that this has on your program and the culture of your school. Every athlete who walks your halls, no matter what sport they play, can benefit from becoming a better athlete. Having the tools to get them there not only becomes an avenue for recruiting, it creates an inroad with other coaches and sports within your school. And once you get athletes and coaches interested, those same tools will provide you with the data to validate what you’re doing and keep them engaged.
Kenny Graham, Director of Player Development for the Detroit Tigers and a close friend, hammered the value of this concept home for me when we were discussing gamification in athletics: “These kids have grown up on things like Fortnite, etc., and their whole world is based around rankings and scores. It’s no longer an option: you’ve got to make it part of your culture.”
Video 1. Technology has the ability to create new possibilities. MuscleLab’s Contact Grid allows us to measure and score our kids’ elasticity, which is something most of them never even knew existed.
I Don’t Want to Deal with It
Some coaches might be attracted to the benefits above but may just not want to mess with it. Why? I can think of a few core reasons a coach might think this way.
If I had to guess, that first stumbling block is likely where the most coaches get stuck. I’ve heard so many fellow coaches and educators say something along the lines of “technology and I just don’t get along.” Some of us have just decided that we’re not good with technology, and we never will be.
The good news is that you don’t have to be an MIT grad to implement performance tech into your program. So many companies are racing to engineer state-of-the-art products that aren’t just for guys with doctorate degrees to use in a lab. This means things that work right out of the box, connect to smartphones via an app, and give immediate feedback that makes sense—technology that is durable, portable, and affordable.
But if you still believe that you won’t have the skills or time to implement something new, I can almost guarantee that you have access to someone who does. Chances are you have an assistant who’s fairly fluent with technology, and this could be a fantastic opportunity for them to take on a new level of ownership and responsibility within your program. In fact, getting that very opportunity within our football program has been one of the most crucial factors in my growth as a coach and an educator. I got to take something that I was good at and use it to help others get better. As a young man, that was life-changing for me.
Even if there’s no one on your staff who fits the bill, you’re still not out of options. Our football program purchased its first endzone camera about seven years ago. This is a piece of equipment that involves a decent amount of setup and know-how, and yet we’ve never had a coach, or even an adult, set it up or run it during a game. Instead, we’ve been able to involve intelligent, committed, hard-working students who wanted to be a part of our program. It’s a great opportunity for a kid who may not be an athlete to be part of something bigger by doing something they enjoy.
Plenty of coaches might also ask things like:
- Are the benefits worth the extra time it takes to set up?
- Does it disrupt the flow of practice?
- What if I’m counting on it, and it decides not to work?
Whether it’s for personal use, in the classroom, or on the field/track, I’ve always thought that the ultimate goal of technology is to evolve to the point where you feel like you aren’t actually using technology. We want tools that make life better without distracting us from what we were trying to accomplish to begin with. Whatever the product is, it just needs to work, be dependable, and enhance the experience.
While much of my dedication to performance tech can be attributed to the benefits that my program has enjoyed, it’s also due to the fact that those benefits haven’t been more trouble than they’re worth. In addition to being a coach, I’m a father of four young children, and spend the hours between 8 a.m. and 3 p.m. teaching civics and history. Extra time simply isn’t a luxury that I have.My investments in technology have saved me time, made going to practice almost as fun as the competitions, and given me feedback that has helped me be a better coach, says @olneytigertrack. Click To Tweet
If a tool wastes my time, disrupts my practice, or can’t be counted on, I just won’t go back to it, no matter what the potential gains might be. But that hasn’t been the case. My investments in technology have saved me time, made going to practice almost as fun as the competitions, and given me feedback that has helped me be a better coach.
Video 2. Technology creates a culture of constant competition, and everyone benefits. In this clip, one of the best athletes we’ve ever had sets a new PR and ties his friend’s all-time best. He had a great career on the track for us, but I’m pretty sure I never heard him yell like this at a meet. (Turn your sound on for this one.)
We Can’t Afford It
If your biggest hang-up when it comes to adding technology to your program is a financial one, I can relate. I’m the head track coach in a small town with a population under 9,000 and a huge baseball tradition. Our equipment budget would barely cover the cost of a single pole vault pole, and fundraising enough to get us through the season is often a serious challenge.
For a long time, being able to invest in nonessential equipment that costs thousands of dollars seemed like a pipe dream, but I’ve learned a couple very valuable lessons over the last few years: People want to give, and they want their giving to impact as many kids as possible. Because of that mindset, we’ve been able to do some incredible things for our athletes, and shock some folks along the way.
I’ve been astounded at just how many people are out there who have the means and the desire to help, even in a small town. Needless to say, track and athletic training programs don’t pull in much at the gate or inspire people to create gridiron clubs (at least where I’m from), but they do go hand in hand with almost every other sport there is.
This mindset of impacting as many kids as possible has been powerful. When I go to people looking to support the youth in our community, I can truthfully tell them that their investment will benefit just about every athlete in the school at one point or another during the year. But the trick is to really mean it and commit to helping every athlete you can to become the best possible version of themselves.
When your goal is to help as many kids as possible, the benefits are numerous: The culture in your school and community improves, coaches and athletes from different sports build camaraderie, and more kids want to participate. (By the way, all this ultimately makes your team better in the process.) Taking all this into consideration, it’s not difficult to see why others would want to chip in.The MuscleLab DSU can impact half of our student body through athletics, and it has the potential to touch even more students when we begin to utilize it in our anatomy and physics classrooms. Click To Tweet
This past spring, we were fully funded for a MuscleLab Data Synchronization Unit (DSU) along with a full set of MuscleLab timing gates. It’s an amazing piece of equipment, but one that I feared most people would not be able to easily embrace or understand. What’s not difficult to understand, though, is that this piece of tech can impact half of our student body through athletics, and it has the potential to touch even more students when we begin to utilize it in our anatomy and physics classrooms. This will be our first attempt at venturing into the classroom with athletic technology, and I’m extremely excited to see what doors this will open and what new possibilities it will bring.
Return vs. Investment
I’ll conclude with some lessons I’ve learned that I hope will minimize uncertainties and frustration for coaches who are just getting started.
First and foremost, do some scouting! The most certain way to avoid buyer’s remorse is to know as much as you can about what you are getting before you finalize that transaction. And luckily, there’s no shortage of resources if you are willing to pursue them. How-tos and demonstrations are all over YouTube. Experts like Carl Valle are reviewing sports tech on platforms like this blog almost every day.
But just as valuable are the reviews from your peers. If you’re looking into something, there’s likely a coach out there already using it and tweeting about it. I can’t recall a single time when I sent a direct message to a high school coach in the past five years seeking their counsel on a piece of equipment they were using that I didn’t receive a thoughtful and timely response. The truth is, anyone who has become proficient at something is probably standing on the shoulders of someone else, and that gratitude drives them to support others. After all, we’re all in this boat together.
Even after you’ve done your homework, it’s wise to start with smaller investments (both in terms of money and time) and see where they go. I really think this is beneficial for a number of reasons. Keeping the scale small obviously allows you to minimize any anxiety you might have about risk. But it also gives you time to build interest with others who may potentially want to invest and help you grow your operation while you build confidence in what you are doing.
Small successes breed a desire to learn and do more, while frustration and mishaps have a tendency to do the opposite. Often, people have a tendency to become overwhelmed with everything a piece of technology can do and all that they can do with it, and frustration and anxiety inevitably follow. Having the discipline to focus on small, simple, and specific goals is invaluable when learning a new technology.Having the discipline to focus on small, simple, and specific goals is invaluable when learning a new technology, says @olneytigertrack. Click To Tweet
To once again quote Carl Valle, “Focus on something you can master, work at it until you get bored with it, and then you can build on it.” This is advice I have repeated countless times when coaching teachers and coaches on technology. Rome wasn’t built in a day.
Lastly, as a high school coach, I’ve had to learn the importance of evaluating scale in regard to what a piece of technology will ultimately be capable of. Some systems have the capability to be impactful with large groups; some do not. Some have certain capabilities that translate to groups and others are only effective with individuals. (For instance, the MuscleLab Contact Grid has countless applications, but some just make more sense when I’m working with one athlete as opposed to 100.) And some systems may not make sense for groups at all, but the potential it possesses for individual athletes simply outweighs all other considerations.
It’s important to once again keep in mind that starting small is so important. Even if you have a piece of equipment that is capable of handling large groups, test drive it and experiment on individuals or very small groups first and then build from there. This may sound obvious, but I’ve found that the temptation to dive in headfirst is very real (and almost never beneficial).
Ultimately, any coach has to do a cost-benefit analysis on potential decisions that impact their program. Is investing in technology worth the time it takes to implement it? What about the potential distractions? Or the money? These are questions that you have to ask yourself.
But you also need to consider the cost of not acting. What are you and your athletes missing out on? Are the things standing in your way actual obstacles or just self-fulfilling prophecies? If you don’t take anything else from this article, I hope you see that these questions are worth asking, and there are plenty of folks out there willing to help you answer them.
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